Poor hygiene can lead to more people getting bacterial infections such as trachoma, a devastating but preventable eye disease that, if left untreated, can lead to irreversible blindness.
This is why water, sanitation and hygiene activities – known as WASH – are a top priority for both prevention and post-operative care. For us at Sightsavers, and for the partners we work with to fight neglected tropical diseases, the WASH approach is vital.
Fatuma Athumani, who lives in Tanzania, is typical of so many of the people we come across. She received surgery for trichiasis, the most advanced, blinding stage of trachoma, during a trachoma treatment programme supported by The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust’s Trachoma Initiative. She learned the hard way how important face-washing is for healing.
At Fatuma’s one-day check-up, the programme’s district eye care co-ordinator, Kasian Lukanga, was concerned that she had not been looking after her eyes as instructed. He taught her to apply ointment and dressing and wash her face thoroughly with soap – a simple but effective resolution.
This straightforward intervention of educating people about facial cleanliness, and others like it, can make a big difference, highlighting the importance of water and sanitation. Kasian said: “I’m not worried about Fatuma. If she takes care of her eyes, I’m sure after two days the swelling will go down.”
Fatuma’s story highlights just how important face washing is for treating trachoma. But it also has a key role in preventing people from getting infected in the first place.
Trachoma spreads easily from person to person, so hand and face washing, and general sanitation, can easily prevent people catching the disease. Growing awareness of this has led to many groundbreaking health and behaviour change programmes being developed in countries around the world to encourage communities to adopt good hygiene practices.
I have been working on one such project. The Super School of Five programme in northern Kenya, organised by Unilever and Lifebuoy, teaches children about hand and face washing using superhero characters in comic books, songs and other materials.